By Earl Bittner, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southeast Public Affairs
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (NNS) -- Public Works Officer Cmdr. Joel Vanessen, a Civil Engineer Corps officer, was presented the Meritorious Service Medal along with many gifts and accolades June 13 during his retirement ceremony at the base chapel at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida.
Family, friends and co-workers all gathered to celebrate his 20 years of dedicated service.
Guest speaker Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southeast Executive Officer Capt. Drew Hascall spoke of Vanessen in big terms, referencing his 6-foot-5 height, and much more.
"It's a big day and we are here to recognize Cmdr. Joel Vanessen and the 20 years of service he's given the Navy and the nation," said Hascall. "I've only known Joel for a little less than a year, but I'd like to offer my observations on his career and his character as I've come to know it."
"Joel Vanessen is a big man! You notice it physically the first time you meet him," continued Hascall. "He's about [6-foot-5] and has a natural presence about him that makes him seem even bigger. He's a big man because he has consistently taken on some of the most challenging jobs in the Civil Engineer Corps."
Hascall went on to share several of Vanessen's career highlights including being hand-picked to serve as the military aid for the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations and Environment and deploying to Afghanistan twice, once serving with the Army Corps of Engineers and then again with U.S. Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan as a Provincial Afghan Advisor.
"These are not the typical jobs of a naval officer," said Hascall. "As I looked through his bio it occurred to me that this was a perfect fit for a man who came from a family where service was important."
Vanessen's father is a reverend and the younger Vanessen spent the first years of his life until age 10 in Nigeria, where his parents were serving in the mission ministry.
Hascall noted that Vanessen's final job was most appropriate for the 'big man,' serving as the public works officer -- the behind the scenes guy that makes the big base run -- the "call to the bullpen guy" the base commanding officer seeks out when he needs a reliever.
Hascall noted the many projects Vanessen was integral to during his two-year tour at NAS Jacksonville, including hangar construction and repair, completion of the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) facility, the great street construction and detour event of 2015, and the demolition of the old power plant. Most notably Vanessen led the successful resurfacing and runway extension at NAS Jacksonville to support the fielding of the P-8 Poseidon.
"Closing an entire airfield is essentially unprecedented in the Navy," said Hascall. "And just as remarkable is how smoothly this project has gone -- completing later this month. This is all a testament to Joel's professional expertise and his inspiring leadership."
As Vanessen began his remarks he spoke of God and his plan for his life -- a plan he felt led him to become an architect and a Civil Engineer Corps naval officer.
"As a child, a passion grew in me; I loved playing soldier with my cap guns as a kid and I also had a God-given gift to draw, to design, to build and to master plan," said Vanessen. "After graduating with my Bachelor's of architecture in 1996, I pursued the option of combining those two passions -- the architect and building side of the house along with the Army man in me and I joined the Civil Engineer Corps."
Vanessen said he struggled with what he should say on his last day after 20 years of service. He wanted to share something inspiring and decided to fall back on his upbringing listening to his father every Sunday. A good sermon has three main points.
"This ceremony isn't about me," said Vanessen. "It's a 'thank you' ceremony; it's a remembrance of God's blessing on us, and finally it's a ceremony for our future officers."
"I've worked with a lot of staff on a lot of installations and the professionalism and the dedication of the staff at Jax (NAS Jacksonville) is second to none," said Vanessen. "My public works department -- I just love those guys. They work their tails off; they set a culture of making things happen. The phrase 'can do' for the Seabees -- the PWD at Jax does that."
Vanessen thanked his family for their support over his career, which involved eight moves and four deployments. He remarked that his family was part of God's blessing and as he and his family start a new chapter in retirement, even a scary chapter moving back home to Chicago to work for the University of Chicago, that this is also a part of God's blessing.
Vanessen's final comments were directed toward the junior officers.
"This is a turnover of the watch to you," he said. "What I see before me are some outstanding officers that will really make us proud -- officers that haven been battle tested with responsibility. Learn from the good and the bad. Take the good and build on it. Make yourself better each day."
"God had a plan for me," said Vanessen to the junior officers. "But he has a plan for you guys, too. All we need to do is trust in God and he will lead the way."
Hascall choked up a bit with his final comment, turning to look directly at Vanessen, "There's one thing I know for sure, we're gonna miss you around here, brother. Joel, thank you for your service, congratulations, and may God give you fair winds and following seas."